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Behind the Barrel of Wild Turkey Bourbon

FOOD + DRINK

Behind the Barrel of Wild Turkey Bourbon

Touring the Kentucky distillery with the acclaimed father and son Master Distillers

by David Graver
on 22 May 2015

Situated on a vast, rolling landscape in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky—amidst the vibrant and ever-growing bourbon trail—Wild Turkey's distillery plays host to deep history and thoughtful modernity. This hub of bourbon and rye production, founded back in 1869, rests high atop a limestone shelf along the banks of the Kentucky River and everything about it speaks to quality, care and craft. And spearheading it all are the father and son Master Distillers Jimmy and Eddie Russell. Jimmy Russell himself is a man of legend—with over 60 years under his belt working for Wild Turkey. Eddie Russell, his son, who began at the distillery on 5 June 1981, received the title of Master Distiller only this year. But it is his attention to detail, respect for the past and desire to continue exploring the brand's potential that makes him a masterful counterpart to his father.

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"Jimmy was taught by Mr Bill Hughes which was the distiller here before prohibition," Eddie Russell explains. "He came back after prohibition, as an old man, to teach Jimmy. So Jimmy still has those same type thoughts, and everything." This means that the older Russell has managed to preserve many of the historic elements of bourbon-making—and he happens to be very set in his way. "For me, I thought my name was No for about the first 25 years, because I would say, 'Jimmy, let's try this!' 'No.' 'Let's do this.' 'No.' You've got to prove it to him that it's not going to change his whiskey." What this means is that very little has actually changed, aside from computerization of some of the process, a shift to stainless steel fermenters and water that's been cleaned first, rather than drawn directly from the river.

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Their wheat is all non-GMO and FDA approved. And the recipe, the one recipe for all the bourbon, hasn't changed—it employs at least 51% corn alcohol, and a heavy mix of rye and malted barley. And, remarkably, it includes the same strand of yeast that Wild Turkey has been using for at least half a century. As Eddie shares, it's the "same yeast as when he came here since 1954. And most likely the same since before prohibition."

In many ways, Eddie likens his father to a mad scientist. He used to watch his father transfer yeast from a petri dish to a flask and then a jug as it grew and expanded. He would make a new batch each week. Eddie says, "When I was a little kid, he kept a yeast culture in our fridge at home. That was part of his quality control. He kept some here at the plant, at his house and some at his brother's. Because if it gets to a certain temperature, it kills your yeast." Wild Turkey still makes their own yeast—and the result is a spiciness and nuttiness in the alcohol. It's distinct. "When I came here to understand the chemistry that he knew, it was amazing. He's a high school graduate. To understand the engineering—he knew to build his stills a certain way. Sit down and talk to him about how an oak tree grows in the forest some time. His information will shock you. To me, that's what a Master Distiller is about," Eddie continues.

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There are at least 18 spirits produced in the Wild Turkey and Russell's Reserve range—and many special releases (from last year's Diamond Edition to the forthcoming, superb, incredibly limited edition Russell's Reserve 1998). The very popular Wild Turkey 101 bourbon, clocking in at 101 proof, marries six, seven and eight year aged spirits. Wild Turkey Straight Rye Whiskey, 81 proof, also carries reliable delight with a punch. The harder to find 101 proof rye kicks things up a notch. Wild Turkey Rare Breed bourbon weighs in at 108.2 proof, or barrel strength and despite packing a punch, carries so much spicy nuance. Even the Wild Turkey American Honey, a 71 proof blended whiskey liqueur, stands as far superior to other honey whiskies on the market. Their highly awarded Russell’s Reserve series—featuring a six-year-old Rye, a 10-year-old and a hand-picked Single Barrell iteration—also conveys the quality and complexity of the alcohol hailing from the Wild Turkey distillery.

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When asked how time has passed over the last 60 years, Jimmy Russell shares that it has flown by in almost a blink. And yet, across all those years the longest tenured Master Distiller in the United States has overseen a tremendous growth surge, a $100 million dollar expansion and renovation of his facilities and most importantly, he's kept his products reliably good. And with his son, he's taking it further into the future.

You can explore the Wild Turkey range online, or purchase select products through Caskers or liquor stores nationwide.

Images by David Graver

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